Monthly Archives: March 2010

Green Zone (2010)

I have noticed that I’ve really been dragging my feet when it comes to writing a Green Zone review. I’ve prioritized it only to have something more necessary (catching up on VH1 reality shows) come to the forefront of my attention span. It’s not like the movie is bad. It may have been misleadingly advertised as Jason Bourne’s tour of Iraq, bringing back together Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy), but it’s not bad. It’s a perfectly fine movie, except in this instance, given the politically explosive and monumentally relevant subject matter, “perfectly fine” sounds like a missed opportunity. This movie should be incendiary, shocking, aggravating, enlightening, and if it happens to be entertaining then that ain’t bad either. The subject matter –the false rationale for war, WMDs– deserves a sober examination. Green Zone is not that movie. Green Zone is about uncovering and righting the mistakes of the Iraq War, and I believe I figured out what keeps Green Zone from being a better, more powerful, more engaging movie — it fictionalizes a story that is already wroth telling. This is a true story that could have stood well on its own merits.

Shortly after the fall of Baghdad in 2003, Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon) is on the hunt for those weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the chief argument for invading Iraq. His team investigates suspected weapons sites but they keep coming up empty. The intelligence appears to be in sharp contrast with the reality on the ground. Miller butts heads with shady government officials (Greg Kinnear) and finds aid in a state department realist (Brendan Gleeson) and a reporter (Amy Ryan) who put her reputation at stake parroting the government intelligence as fact. The Iraqi army is disbanded and now the former generals under Saddam Hussein are conferring what the next steps should be. General Al Rawi (Yigal Naor, who played Saddam in a TV mini-series) is waiting for the Americans to extend a hand, and if not then they will become an insurrection. Miller is racing to track down Al Rawi because he knows the truth in the lead up to the war, which is why those shady government officials are also trying to kill him.

Based upon reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Life Inside the Green Zone, the filmmakers have resorted to a fictional narrative informed by the real events. My biggest gripe is this: the true story is far more interesting, complicated, and relevant than concocting a story about one military man’s search for answers. The film is laid out like a conspiracy thriller, where our hero gains a small sliver of information that leads to another piece, and another and another, until finally a picture emerges. I get it. With Damon as a soldier, the audience has an obvious rotting point, a protagonist who we can easily be labeled as good. And then when he uncovers the truth, and alerts the media, it provides a tidy, satisfying end for the movie. Except that’s not what happened. In the real world, the hunt for those phantom WMDs carried on for months, and the news trickled drip by drip. There were no smoking guns, no white knights to shine the light of truth (Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame might be the closest in consideration), and there wasn’t anything as conclusive as a military officer writing a report and sending it the mainstream media.

Green Zone attempts to craft a satisfying close to the WMD hunt, and likewise the war itself. This is nothing more than revisionist wish fulfillment, wanting to insert a hero of conscious and ability during a time where we had a malaise of responsibility from those in the realms of higher command. And just to make sure they don’t make too many waves, Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland (Mystic River) wrap their crusading character in the uniform of America’s finest, making it difficult to criticize his noble hunt, striping away politics. The trouble is that the Bush Administration rarely made apolitical decisions; everything was steeped in politics, even the truth about weapons of mass destruction. So Green Zone does the audience a disservice by trying to play nice, setting up a villainous fictional straw man, and forgoing naming the names of those that led this country astray. Because of placing the film’s point of view squarely with Miller, we never get to examine the bigger picture, the manipulations and machinations that led to war. We are stuck in a very limited focus of finding the WMDs.

Now, I must ask whether or not I’m unfairly judging the movie. Hollywood has often taken fascinating and momentous true-life stories and redirected them toward fiction. Green Zone is certainly a technically proficient film. Greengrass’ trademark shaky camera is ever vigilant, always roving and looking for the action; although in a realistic war setting, the kinetic handheld camerawork can come across as potentially hyperactive. Conversations between two people can come across like intense linguistic battles. Walks down hallways can appear to be speedy jaunts brimming with purpose and anxiety. The tension just doesn’t materialize. Without a nervy story, the Greengrass visual staple can seem over the top, antsy, nervous, and also annoying. This is one narrative for Greengrass that could have improved by the dedicated use of a tripod.

Green Zone is not Bourne at all. The Universal marketing team was trying to hoodwink the public into seeing an Iraq War movie. Damon isn’t as polished and in command as Bourne. Those who argue that Green Zone is anti-American or anti-troops are grossly missing the point. Reactionary, bellicose rhetoric, without a wit of substance, is part of the reason the U.S. is currently in Iraq. You can argue against policy, including war policy, and still be considered a patriot. Patriotism is not synonymous with warmongering. It’s too bad that the filmmakers felt that the true story wasn’t good enough to be told, instead settling for a decent if unmemorable political thriller. This adaptation takes the most significant foreign policy event in modern American history, one where the ramifications will be felt for over a generation, and clears all the hard-boiled details to attach a conventional one-man-fights-for-truth tale. It’s hard to get self-righteous when the movie keeps trying to cover its own ass.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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Repo Men (2010)

It’s not unheard of for different writers to independently create similar projects. Remember back in 1998 when there were two animated bug movies and two apocalyptic asteroid flicks? Granted, those were big budget studio movies and the final films had little in common other than concept or premise. Repo Men takes place in a world where people open contracts on new organ transplants, but if the buyer is late on the payment then a repo man will come and take back the merchandise. This gory premise might sound familiar for fans of the Goth opera, Repo: the Genetic Opera, which was released a whole 18 months earlier. The makers of Repo Men and Repo have engaged in a he-said/she-said argument over who originated the idea. Repo Men‘s screenwriters claim they came up with the concept in 2003, though the book the film is based was only released in 2009. The Repo team point out that their funky little musical began as a theatrical show that was first performed in 2002. The songwriters behind Repo say that the idea itself goes back to 1999 and began as a 10-minute opera experiment. I suppose we’ll never know who really had the idea first, though I’m inclined to side with the Repo musical fellas because they can back up their claims with evidence. It seems like a whole lot of squabbling over so little, but hey, that’s Hollywood for you.

In the not-too-distant future, one corporation, The Union, seems to hold sway in the world of organ transplants. Remy (Jude Law) is an expert repossessions officer who will slice open anybody 90 days late on his or her payment. His wife wants him to transfer to sales; it’s less messy. Remy’s partner (Forest Whitaker) is an old childhood friend and doesn’t want to lose his butcher buddy. One night, Remy is sidelined by some malfunctioning equipment that fires his heart. He has no choice but to get his own organ transplant. Following the operation, Remy finds that he no longer has the stomach for his old line of work. Remy’s newfound moral compass comes at a cost. He quickly falls behind in his payments and his old bosses plead for Remy to refinance. Reluctantly, they sic the repo men, including Whitaker, on Remy to retrieve company property.

Repo Men takes some nice commentary on predatory lending, pushing the hard sell knowing that the customer can never stay ahead of the mounting fees and payments. The allegory has some sharp moments. However, the movie would have benefited from being pushed further in pretty much every regard. The side characters are horribly shallow. I’m fairly certain that Carice van Houten (electrifying in Black Book), as Remy’s beleaguered wife, could have been replaced with a cardboard cutout boasting a disapproving look. She gets to glare and complain and talk about family issues and then she’s gone, replaced entirely by Beth, a mysterious organ replacement junkie. Beth could have an intriguing back story, and the concept of surgery addiction could dwell upon the human cost of beauty and “upgrading,” but alas, her real purpose is to become an oddly implacable love interest for Remy. She gets to hold his hand while they run. That’s her main contribution (except for one key scene detailed below).

The entire concept of a future world held hostage by a greedy health care corporation could use more contemplation. What is happening with society? No epidemic is ever mentioned, so why do people start contracts on million dollar organs? Do the heavy debts pass on to the next of kin? What is the legality of organ repossession? What level of competition is there out there in the market? What does the government have to say about all this? Does this mighty company supersede the U.S. government? How come Remy can’t even get an employee discount on the merchandise? Has anybody had enough surgeries to become the six million dollar man? There is a wealth of questions born from this premise, but the movie only scratches the intellectual surface and sets its standard change-of-perspective morality storyline into gear. I actually would have found the life of an organ salesman to be more dramatically appealing. What kind of ethical rationalizations take place in the mind of a man who makes his living signing saps into modern indentured servitude? I find that story direction to be more compelling than following the guys who bring back the company merchandise.

But then something weird happens. The movie gallops to a satisfying close, and then it somehow gets even better in its closing moments. I was certain that I was going to write off Repo Men but then 4 things happened to make me sit up straight in my chair (I’ll refrain from any large spoilers):

1) In a film relentlessly aping the visuals of other, superior dystopian films, there’s not much new to look at. You’ve seen this future society thing before, just with more flying cars or jet packs. I came to terms with this; it’s not every movie that reinvents how we interpret the future short of some calamity. Then when Remy breaks into the Company HQ, which is awfully easy by the way, he stumbles into the genetic organ hatchery, if you will. Rows and rows and rows of scientists tinker with organ replacements. The entire environment is a strikingly sterile white, including the scientists wrapped in bulky white biohazard suits. Then Remy and Beth make a run for it, and they are covered head to toe in black. It’s a fabulous visual image, watching the color contrasts. It’s debut director Miguel Sapochnik’s high point.

2) Once Remy and Beth move beyond this laboratory, they get caught in a hallway, and Remy proceeds to take out a mob of employees. The fight sequence is several minutes long and a clear nod to the memorable extended hallway fight in Oldboy (Remy takes out a hammer as his final weapon). Weirdly, Remy’s opponents are suit types, middlemen, office employees, numbers crunchers, but they all leap into battle to take out the corporate intruder. The fight sequence is bloody and stylish enough to please the senses, like when Remy swings a hacksaw and we get Swinging Hacksaw POV as characters duck out of the way lest their jugulars get sliced.

3) Following this, Remmy and Beth must deposit their corporate-licensed organ replacements. This involves cutting each other open, taking a bar code scanner (think a grocery check-out), and digging inside each other to get those subcutaneous scans. What’s amusing is that the scene is blatantly juxtaposed as a sex scene; Remmy and Beth intimately penetrate each other, the editing cuts to close-ups of moaning, and the other tries to soothe the pain with physical assurances, and it’s all set to a slow jam. It’s something of a bizarre sequence, especially upon further review (how effective can scanning for bar codes be inside the gook-filled human body?), but man is it interesting.

4) Just as I had come to terms with the movie settling for a conventional conclusion, the movie pulls the rug out from under you. It offers up a last-minute ending that upends the conventional framework, and, actually, presents the easy coast to a conventional stop in a new light. This is one of those rare instances where a last-minute ending twist actually improved the film. More often than not, a last-second twist is forced and the nail in the coffin of lasting entertainment.

Repo Men is a competently looking, competently entertaining sci-fi thriller that miraculously stumbles into a final act that not only works, it elevates the rest of the movie. My mild boredom vanished and I started wondering why they made me wait so long for the good stuff. Repo Men is a mixed marriage of overall tone. One second it will be darkly humorous, the next it will be satirical, the next it will pine for serious drama, and occasionally it goes for Guy Richie-styled slapstick. A sequence where Remy describes the three occasions he’s been knocked out, with visual interludes, feels like a deleted scene from an entirely different movie. The movie never really settles, touching upon a lot of areas but mostly poorly. The script desperately needed to be fleshed out to make any lasting impact. Now that I’m living in a two-Repo world, I’ll probably stick with the campy musical fun of Repo: the Genetic Opera. At least that movie left you humming.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Whiteout (2009)

I was expecting bad but this is shockingly bad, notably in its lapses in basic filmmaking fundamentals. For instance, there’s a scene where Kate Beckinsale talks with a superior, and the editing cuts back and forth in the middle of every damn line between a medium shot of the actress and a close-up. The jarring effect feels like the movie is punching you in the face. The movie can’t even get watching conversations right! This Antarctica-set murder mystery seems like a neat idea until you realize it’s just another lousy slasher movie, albeit in an exotic location. The Antarctica location is mostly used to make sure that nobody can tell what the hell’s going on. Furious white flurries of snow pretty much make the onscreen action oblique, like you’re trying to look through a dirty window and comprehend what’s happening. The plot sets up a wealth of disposable characters and patently obvious suspects (Gee, will the weird, tattooed pilot have something to do with a body dropped from a plane? Stay tuned). It’s all pretty stupid with no real room for brain-dead thrills because the technical craft is so shoddy. However, the movie did make it clear that when, not if, the CSI franchise expands, they need to set it in Antarctica.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Ponyo (2009)

It was hard for me to watch the initial trailers and advertisement for this movie because the animation just looked so … simple. I was forlorn that legendary director Hayao Miyazaki was taking a step backwards. He was stepping away from the complexity of his recent works. While his take on Han Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid tale is intended for young children, I was relieved when I finally saw the finished animation. I got what he was going for: a painterly aesthetic that is seductively simple. The boy meets fish-turned-girl tale is resoundingly cute with a delightful sense of wonder; however, it really just sort of comes to an abrupt stop. The character relationships are established, the conflict of a sea princess being on land is developed, and then all the magical creatures team up and chat with the humans, and then we’re pretty much done. It’s a curiously hasty conclusion and it makes the movie feel less formalized and finished; Miyazaki is still one of the most imaginative filmmakers alive, in any medium, but Ponyo, while visually appealing and mostly adorable, suffer from shrift storytelling that ultimately makes this a cute if passing diversion.

Nate’s Grade: B

Law Abiding Citizen (2009)

Taking a few lessons from the grisly Saw franchise, this revenge thriller follows Clyde (Gerard Butler) track and kill the men responsible for murdering his wife and child. Except that pretty gets resolved in 15 minutes. The rest of the movie is Clyde’s misguided, morally queasy assault on the justice system; the judges, lawyers, police officers that keep a dying system going, letting guilty murderers walk. Clyde is specifically targeting the prosecutor (Jaime Foxx) that made a plea bargain instead of risking his conviction percentage at a trial. This is a violent vision that wants to rewrite our very Constitution, questioning giving accused murders the same considerations as soccer moms. The movie can come across as a conservative, Death Wish-style fantasy against the judicial system and those pesky civil liberties afforded to everyone. While shrouded in the guise of being a bloody thriller, the movie’s idea of moral ambiguity is pretty thin. Its ethical arguments don’t stand a second line of questioning. Sure, director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job) can put together an exciting and tense sequence, and the film is filled with surprise, and Butler arguably gives his best performance since 300, but while I was entertained I was also offended at being expected to cheer every time Clyde knocked off another innocent citizen.

Nate’s Grade: C

A Prophet (2009)

France’s entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar is like a much more realistic version of HBO’s soapy prison drama, Oz, for better and worse. We follow a young prisoner who gets caught up in the power dynamics of the many warring factions within the pokey. This is a dense, slow-burning drama that hooks you early but then seems to stall. Early on, our lead character is given an ultimatum by a Corsican boss: murder an informant held in the jail or die himself. It’s a turbulent moral struggle with definite intrigue as he considers his dwindling options of escape and practices a routine to slit a man’s throat to save his own. After that A Prophet introduces a stream of characters inside and out of prison and it gets more complicated. The film values realism but it means that the characters aren’t as colorful, and therefore memorable or interesting, as they would be in similar crime capers. It makes it hard to remember who is who and why exactly they’re important. The story follows the steady ascent of our lead from nascent to criminal boss but it all plays out as a series of small power plays with little grand gestures. This is not Scarface at all. There’s little action, scant suspense, but mostly the movie deals with the minutia of climbing the criminal underworld. It’s like the filmmakers want to impress you with the homework they did in sociology. A bland lead and an overabundance of procedural details blunts the film’s entertainment quality. I appreciate gritty realism but after a while I’d sacrifice some of that realism for some more engaging characters.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

This is a crazy movie. It is not weird, it is not bizarre; it is not silly. Werner Herzog’s whacked-out movie is a remake of a 1992 movie that wasn’t that good to begin with. This certifiably crazy movie mostly involves Nicolas Cage as a corrupt cop playing all sides and snorting everything that isn’t bolted down in the Big Easy up his nose. For a stretch during the middle, he starts to sound like Jimmy Stewart with lockjaw. The central murder investigation plot is pretty much an afterthought in an environment like this. You want the crazy, and with Cage and Herzog, it is in no short supply. There’s Cage threatening an elderly woman at gunpoint, crawling reptile POV shots, a man’s “soul” break-dancing after the man lies dead, and neon iguanas that may exist only in Cage’s drugged-out mind. The film has been described as a trippy parody of standard cops-and-robbers fare, or as a seriously demented anti-drug message, but I think the best description is just “crazy-ass movie.” It has moments that make you do nothing but shake your head and laugh, like when Cage is about to hit rock bottom and EVERY case/storyline gets solved in a matter of seconds to his bemused disbelief. The comedy is straight-faced but it is definitely there. Cage harnesses his eccentricities and delivers an insanely entertaining performance that reconfirms that there is indeed an actor underneath his Hollywood veneer. He is compulsively enjoyable and the movie is compulsively watchable, every crazy freaking second of it. Iguanas!

Nate’s Grade: B

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Director Tim Burton seems like the perfect candidate to take on the imagery of author Lewis Carroll. I would argue that, short of Dickens’ Christmas Carol, Alice in Wonderland is the most reproduced piece of literature in modern history. It’s going to take a keen vision to make these old characters interesting (the macabre American McGee video game sure felt like it could have been born from the mind of Tim Burton). Unfortunately, Burton and some 3-D wizardry are not enough to compensate for a story that only works in one dimension.

Alice (Mia Wasikoswki) is now a teenager girl who can barely remember her jaunt to Wonderland in her youth. She’s assigned to marry a simpering lord because in Victorian England that’s how women took care of their futures. Alice is more interested in taking over her dead father’s trading company. So when the time comes for her lord to ask for her hand in marriage, Alice stammers, says she needs some air, and chases after what looks like a rabbit with a pocket watch. She falls down a rabbit hole and winds up back in Wonderland, however it’s really known as Underland. It’s been 13 years since Alice visited this magical world, and in the meantime the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) has ruled as a tyrant quite fond of removing the bond between head and neck. Her sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), was deposed and lives in exile. The (W)underland residents live in hope that an Alice will return and free them as an old prophecy foretells. She’ll have to rely on old friends, like the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) and the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) to fulfill her destiny, and, why not, slay the Red Queen’s fearsome dragon, the Jabberwocky.

You would think that the combination of Burton, Depp, Lewis Carroll, and 3-D would produce an irrefutable masterpiece, at least from a visual and entertainment standpoint. I’m compelled to argue that the finished results are pretty much a mixed bag. The world of (W)underland seems fairly drab. Sure it was some big stuff and some weird stuff but from a color standpoint everything comes across as washed out, like Burton took one look and said, “Bright colors equate happiness. We can’t have that.” I understand the world wanting to convey a dispirited mood, but this isn’t any regular Burton film, this is Alice in Wonderland and we need a sense of, wait for it, wonder. Instead, we get an overwhelming feeling of drabness. Now, full disclosure, I didn’t catch the 3-D version of this movie for two reasons: 1) my wife’s head was hurting and she couldn’t take 90 minutes wearing nose-pinching, eye-hurting glasses that play with her depth of field, and 2) the 3-D shows were all sold out. I could tell which elements where intended to pop in a 3-D environment, namely the Hare always throwing objects as a calling card and the materialization of the Cheshire Cat. The tone isn’t too dark to scare the Disney families but at the same time there’s a bit more menace to the proceedings. The Red Queen’s bulbous, disproportionate head makes for an eye-catching visual that doesn’t get stale. (W)underland is a more hostile world but at the same time it’s not too threatening. Pretty much all the villains have some moment of redemption that makes them less threatening. The weirdest motif in the movie is eye gouging, which happens twice thanks to the same diminutive character.

Having said that, this is a visual decision that I could live with if the story engaged my senses more. Alice is now an older 19-year-old girl that has to defend (W)underland by fighting a dragon and suiting up in armor. She has to accept her destiny and be THE Alice and save the kingdom. The mystery of whether Alice is the one true Alice, look no further than the title, folks. He doesn’t remember anything from her first encounter in (W)underland and yet she has no sense of awe or curiosity. Also, why now do the residents of (W)unerland seek out Alice to rescue them? They never thought about reaching out in the 13 years the Red Queen has been ruling?

The plot is a fairly pedestrian “hero’s quest” that ends in a fairly pedestrian battle sequence where the armies of good and evil clash in CGI combat. The problem is that the original Alice in Wonderland source material really didn’t have much of a plot to it; it was really more a satire of the times, which featured Alice essentially going from one oddball to the other. The appeal was more the language than the story. It’s not the easiest piece of literature to adapt, to find a through line for a plot, so I guess making it about a hero’s destiny seems like the easiest, laziest path. The screenplay by Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast) assembles all the memorable characters but gives them little else to do, other than act mad. You may start to feel Alice’s sense of frustration after a while. Because of the threadbare story, you know exactly where the movie is going to be headed (wow, unintentional pun). In some ways this movie functions as a sequel and in some ways this movie functions as a remake, meaning that the plot is pretty much stuck trying to decide where to go next in a standard fantasy narrative device.

And then there’s the dance scene. Oh, the dance scene. How do I approach this gingerly? The climax that’s established is not Alice slaying the dragon, accepting her destiny, and (W)underland triumphing over the Red Queen’s tyranny. The climax is Depp break-dancing. You read that right, though the residents refer to his crazy legs movement as “futterwackin,” which sounds suspiciously naughty. It’s a moment so goofy, so tonally inappropriate that it shatters the entire notion of suspension of disbelief. It rips you out of the movie and all for a cheap laugh. It’s bizarre. I acknowledge that, given the fantasy framework, that the ending ought to stay in touch with the fantastical setting. But break-dancing? Would The Wizard of Oz have ended better if the Tin Man and the Scarecrow started break-dancing? At least the Tin Man could effectively perform the Robot. It’s a real-world artifact that has no place in the world of fantasy.

Depp is usually such a valued performer, digging deep into his character and reveling in their eccentricities. He’s the strangest and most exciting character actor that has become a box-office star. But that doesn’t mean he’s immune from giving a rare bad performance. While nowhere near as off-putting as his Willy Wonka, Depp’s Hatter is more distraction than anything. He comes across like a figure grappling with post-traumatic stress, causing him to mutter incomprehensibly in a Scottish brogue. He’s tiresome after a while. Carter (Sweeny Todd) can be pretty shrill, playing the same overwrought note time and again, but she still manages to give the best performance in the movie. Hathaway just sort of acts flighty and raises her arms, waltzing around like she’s trying to imitate Depp’s Jack Sparrow. She’s entirely wasted. Stephen Fry (V for Vendetta) is a delight as the voice of the Cheshire Cat, and our heroine, Wasikowska (HBO’s In Treatment) has a striking Grecian presence, even if her performance is more dour than it needs to be given the fanciful environment.

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp usually make for an unbeatable creative team, but I think Disney was the key figure in this arrangement. Alice in Wonderland wants to thrill without getting too scary, wants to delight without getting too original, and wants to dazzle without getting too weird. Burton’s visual inventiveness manages to make the movie entrancing at times and bewildering when the rest of the movie fails to live up to those fleeting moments. Truth be told, I actually enjoyed the real-world Victorian scenes more than many of the ones in (W)udnerland. The film is just too disjointed and uneven to fully embrace, regardless of the 3-D upgrade. There are moments that I adored and moments that I could have lived without — like the break-dancing finale. The finished product isn’t a terrible night out at the movies, and there are plenty of enjoyable elements to savor. However, Alice plays like a familiar fantasy that takes Lewis Carroll’s creatures and rearranged them into a watered-down Lord of the Rings hybrid.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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